It was a little rebellious on his part, but Zhe Yan was never one to follow popular opinion. Others cursed, calling young Prince A-Li unworthy of his title for what he did to Sujin, yet not Zhe Yan.
A-Li’s shenanigan was hands down the most entertaining happening he’d heard of in decades. The Phoenix deity had laughed himself silly for days, and that was in a sober state. He would never be able to look at a bullfrog again without laughing or picturing Sujin’s face. Xiao Wu’s eldest son was something special. It was damn clever and outrageously original stealing and hiding that evil woman all these years for proper punishment fitting for her crimes.
Zhe Yan was secretly jealous for not personally thinking up such a brilliant plan. If anything, he appreciated A-Li’s humorously twisted method of dealing with wrongdoers because they reminded him of Mo Yuan’s ways in his younger, wilder days. He missed those days.
It seems like another lifetime ago, but Uncle Mo Yuan once declared my sister and I were identical on the outside, but we were opposites inside. “You have your mother’s intuitive nature. You can express your emotions wherein Ying’er takes after her paternal side; she’s a suppressor like her father. She’ll keep everything bottled until it becomes a disease that consumes her. I hope you’re there in her time of need as her older sibling to guide and save her better than I did mine.”
“What do I do when Ying’er closes down and shuts me out? She’s like a rock when she gets into one of her moods.” I asked when he smiled most tenderly and stated in his soft voice, “She’s not that hard. Ying’er is more sensitive than she lets on. Gently coax and talk to her until she comes out of her dark spell.”
Good, fine words of wisdom from hundreds of years ago, but I realize the gravity of his astute comments from observing us, understanding him now. Had I been paying better attention, I might have caught his remorse regarding our father, his twin, but again, I missed it, and what am I to do since that moment he predicted long ago has arrived for Ying’er.
Changying hasn’t spoken, eaten, or gotten out of bed since the Celestial guards dragged our brother A-Li away in chains like a common criminal before our eyes. She should cry and even attempt to explain her actions. However, that isn’t how my sister’s wired.
Where another may self-reflect, she self blames. Her harmful practice of handling fault is toxic. She may not verbalize it, but she accepts all the blame, internalizing her guilt, magnifying and expanding before spreading like cancer. She gulps her self-contempt like deserved poison before shutting everyone away and sinking into the bottomless chasm of self-isolation.
She’s currently raising and closing her fortress-like borders, withdrawing from everything, including me. She hasn’t a clue how desolately lonesome her absence makes me feel. It’s terrible to be so close to someone yet still feel more lonely than being alone.
“What A-Li did with Sujin wasn’t proper by any means. Ying’er fighting with him using magic was wrong but stopping him from going down a darker path was correct.” I say, lightly scolding and commending her moralistic choice using my older sister’s voice, trying to sound as much like our mother as possible.
She’s non-responsive. She doesn’t budge with the covers tightly pulled up and over her head. I might as well to conversing with the dragon statue in the courtyard. It sounds like I’m talking to myself when I mumble between breakfast bites, “I don’t condone what he’s done. We know he means the best despite his unconventional methods and solutions. I wish he would have told us what he was doing.”
My remark is the truth. I do wish Dege had shared his burden with us. Perhaps together, we could have come up with a better plan, and he would be with us now, and Ying’er wouldn’t be in this depressive state.
Ying’er’s internal fire, her cultivation is lagging, and her dragon magic dilutes, leaving her vulnerable when she’s in this condition. Still, I can only hope she’s listening to me as I chat away, sippings my tea, “A-Li has been keeping track of everything going back to his first substantial memories with his magic. I’m unsure how to feel about him fiddling with time. Time isn’t something to take lightly, but he was doing it and traveling back into the past to verify all of his suspicions.”
“He’s been busy collecting information that filled five thousand scrolls. Not the thin binders either, but the massive ones used by the Celestial monks and secretaries for the royal annals. Before leaving for his trial, he gave the entirety of his records to Lord Donghui, who passed them to the elder council after reading them himself.”
“Can you picture how big that pile must have been? Five thousand scrolls. That’s a lot of content, but the elder members reviewed them in days and gave them to the other before sending them to Zhe Yan’s hut.”
With quickly clapping hands, I applaud our brother’s effort and converse, sounding nonchalant, “I’m curious to read them. Who knew A-Li was such a scholar? I believe some quality time on Mount Kunlun with Uncle Mo Yuan and the disciples would make him a better leader.”
My comments spring the rock back to life. I finally have her attention when Ying’er bolts up, and if looks could kill, I would have died from invisible arrows of her discontent shooting from her sparkling green eyes as she hisses like an angry viper, “You hateful bitch! How dare you bring up Kunlun or Uncle Mo Yuan at a time like this!”
“You’re so transparent! Be truthful. You can’t wait until everyone returns so you can continue to live this flashy princess life! You’ve despised him all your life, and now you want to read of A-Li’s loathing so you can carry on about how much more you despise him and suck up to Heavenly Lord!”
She accuses me unjustly. Despite being my twin, she doesn’t understand me at all. It’s one-sided how little she knows me and how little credit she gives me. She thinks she is the only one conflicted, assuming I’m satisfied in Nine Heavens because I smile with a bit more ease, never considering I’m merely better at hiding my feelings than her.
With a rush of movements, the bedding gets cast aside. Ying’er jumps out from her bed and charges crossing the large room with quickened steps until she’s peering down at me with spite pouring from her eyes and screams.
She hollers, in her loudest voice, “I’m never getting married. I’m never falling in love, and I’ll never be like our mother.” She huffs, turning over the breakfast table with her foot and screaming contemptuously with all the hurt in her broken heart.
“This chaos is all mother’s fault! I, Ying’er, would never do the things she has. I’d rather get quartered by the four beasts that once lived in the East sea and have my body parts scattered throughout all eight realms and four seas than live as she did. Unlike her, I’m a woman with virtues—mother’s messy.”
“Everything she touches turns to filth! Look at you; she’s made you loathe the man who loved and raised us as his own!” She shouts.
Swiftly I raise a privacy spell because her screaming scares the servants outside. Ying’er isn’t herself, and what she’s expressing about our mother and family shouldn’t reach anyone’s ears.
Her tirade continues with more wrath. “If it were up to you, you’d have Heavenly Lord reopen the punishment platform and push our Uncle from it! I dare you! I challenge you to recall one good quality about Uncle Mo Yuan. I bet you can’t because you hate him to the core!”
“Ying’er,” I reply with quivering lips, “I miss how warm his hands felt when he held mine. He used to make this funny face when I tickled his beard with my fingertips. I loved that shy expression he made when he hid his smile. I would kill for a platter of Uncle Mo Yuan’s wild mushrooms and tofu dumplings.”
My frown curls into a nostalgic smile as a barrage of fond memories I experienced on Kunlun flood my brain. I’m whining like a child but who cares since my sobbing comes from my place of pain also, “That savory smell made everyone drool, and mother would linger and whimper in the doorway into the pantry like a ravenous dog. Do you remember that one time when her nine tails came out because she was so excited to eat, and Uncle Mo Yuan laughed so hard he was crying?”
“I asked the royal kitchen for some here, but they didn’t taste anything like his.” I speak between gasping sobs, and my twin reply in the same tiny grief-filled voice, “Chives.”
She whispers, “His secret ingredient was young chives in his dumplings, and they were the best. He used to hum when he made them for mother.”
“No matter what anyone says about him, without a doubt, he treasured her more than life, but what frightens me is if he ever loved me? What if Uncle Mo Yuan never loved me? What if it was all a show? If everything was a just pretense of keeping up with appearances, what does that make me?”
And there it is, just like that, the wound festering inside her reveals itself. My sister’s greatest fear is spoken aloud.
Her outrage and strength leave her body. She crumbles, falls to the ground, throws herself into my open arms, and weeps as I’ve never seen her cry before.
Holding each other, we grieve for our losses, cry for everything we’ve endured thus far, and wail in fear of the future. Even though we often forget A-Li, Ying’er, and I may appear like young adults, we are still young children in reality.
“Let me be clear. We won’t change our course to locate milk or a doctor when he falls ill.” When we left the healer’s home, Ye Hua warned Bai Qian before adding morbidly, “His death… when it comes will be on your hands, not mine.”
Under my breath, I reprimand him, “Aya, that wasn’t necessary, Ye Hua?”
I hear myself mumble because he doesn’t have to be that cruel. A light slap rings when my palm comes to my face as I shake my head at my friend. It has taken me years to get accustomed to my best friend without hurt feelings because he has a way of coming off chilly, even downright hostile like he is now.
He’s not everyone’s cup of tea. Ye Hua often offends people without even trying, and today, he’s intentionally trying to deter her with his boorish speech and authoritative tone. Most would have given in by now, yet she’s not budging. He doesn’t intimidate her or Sujin, who seems to despise him with every fiber of her being.
Standing on her tiptoes, Qian Qian barely comes to his shoulders, but you would think she was a giant looking so confident. She smiled, nodded in agreement, firmly, holding her own ground, but something in her eyes.
It’s a look that I’m well accustomed to seeing. It’s the same calculating gaze my father has when he’s scrutinizing the ledger of those indebted to him, and I have an odd feeling that Ye Hua had incurred a debt to her.
Here’s the thing, my friend is highly observant, but Ye Hua doesn’t seem to care when he sets a too swift leader’s pace with his horse Shadow. The duo moved through the dense woods like the wind, passing through the trees, weaving in and out, never thinking that Qian Qian was riding bent and hunched over to create a pocket of space for A-Li in her front midsection.
It’s intentional punishment when he’s purposely making the passage harder, hoping she’ll give up the baby due to discomfort, but fortune seems to shine on her, and it took us less than a half-day to find a town traveling north.
Once in town, we split up to save time. Sujin went to the local street gang to whom she had prior affinities and asked for any news regarding my father’s entourage. Since he was traveling with a sizable party, they would be rather noticeable, and the word was none had seen the Ming envoy nor any of Minster Shao’s men.
Ye Hua traded one of the horses for a sturdy wheeled cart used by the commoners. Since we’re were assuming the guise of farmers, young riders all on separate steeds with a baby would raise a few brows of suspicion. Ownership of four finely bred equines would imply possession of capital and didn’t fit our story.
He sold another horse and purchased essential provisions such as dried food, grains, practical medicinal things, and for protection, arrows for the unmarked bows he brought for this trip.
While Ye Hua handled other necessities, such as visiting the silversmith to examine two remaining horses’ shoes, he sent me to tag along and guard Qian Qian as she searched for milk for A-Li in this busy tradepost town.
I like this cheerful girl with the fast walk. I’ve never met a female like her. You never know what she’s going to do next. She buys a bag of sunflower seeds and asks for directions for the rice mill.
It didn’t take long before she encountered a long row of gossiping women selling an array of delicious rice cakes. Mo Yuan’s future wife is clever with the gift of gab and a silver tongue. She’s exceptionally persuasive. I’d bet my last bit of gold that she could talk a blind man into offering up his walking stick to her.
After telling me to stay out of eyesight, she approached them, “Excuse me, kind mothers, I require milk for this baby.” Sincerity poured from her big eyes, her frowning lips emphasizing as she disclosed the fact of A-Li’s late mother.
“I am an apprentice nun on pilgrimage to Ming from the temple near Hangyang and discovered this poor child in the woods. His poor mother, a grieving widow, left a will, stating she could not fight off her brother-in-law’s inappropriate advances and went to join her husband, who passed mere weeks after their love matched marriage. Aunties, are there anyone who can share a little milk with this child that I believe heaven placed him in our path.”
Moving the swaddle, she reveals A-Li’s cute little face to the crowd of women and proclaims, “Look at his face? Have you ever seen such features? This one’s destiny is one of greatness and his chubby earlobes. Such fortuitous ears remind me of the Buddha. He may have lost his mother; however, I can’t help but consider this chance meeting a blessing in disguise. Now, he has the opportunity to have many mothers. Which one of you would like to go first and become ‘Big’ mother?”
The women began to cry at A-Li’s tragic beginning. There isn’t a dry eye in the rice mill. It goes to show most often; the truth is most provoking and stirring.
The sad thing is that these women have heard terrible stories like this that aren’t that rare. It happens every day in a traditional society governed by men, and before long, breastfeeding mothers argued to nurse the A-Li who got passed from one woman’s breast to another.
The other women doted and kissed him as he fed until the infant had drunk his fill and passed out from a milk-induced coma.
“Thank you. A-Li has many mothers.” Bowing demurely with both hands in prayer, she thanked everyone and offered payment, but nobody accepted her coin instead of giving us bundles of rice cakes for our journey.
When I asked if we should find another source of milk to take with us, she winked, shoving a piece of white glutinous rice cake into her mouth with a smile, and replied full of certainty, “I have a strong feeling luck smiles on our precious A-Li. He won’t go hungry. Ever.”
Such a strange statement, and what was stranger was she was right. The first night we set up our camp, two other horse-lead carts full of people appeared and joined our fire. Several women had young yet unweaned children and were more than willing to feed A-Li within the groups.
The farmers assume we, too, are of the same class by our plain neutral clothing. What they had, they were more than eager to share. Ye Hua reciprocated, sharing the simple meal of young spinach leaves and bean paste soup with rice, our dinner, and sesame oil brushed and roasted long cylinders of rice cake for dessert.
After the women put the children down for the night, the men casually passed around a brown bottle full of fermented rice wine makkgori and candidly shared their woes in the warmth of the fire.
One family explained they had been a wheat farmer for generations, working and living off the land’s bounty until the recent tax raise set by the new magistrate. They were far from the ocean, yet the government insisted on imposing the new tariff. The new landlord from Hanyang insisted on payment made with abalone.
The other household was from the most southern part of the peninsula, the sea. The ocean folks confessed they could not deliver the new salt, and pearl tributes fled to the high mountains to discover more fines and unreasonable taxes.
All tell us the same, ones who could not pay their taxes became enslaved, and their young daughters and wives were being sold into the Gisaeng houses or taken as concubines by the higher born or senior military members.
The families who could and had the means chose to run, hoping Ming could offer them refugee and a better life for their children.
They weren’t the only ones running away. Our small party picked up new travel companions daily, and the stories were identically heartbreaking. They ask to join us, hoping for a safe passage with five caravans and twelve able young men—safety in numbers.
Despite the extra time it would take to traverse with others, there would be broader security for everyone and a sense of camaraderie.
Ye Hua agrees to stun the hell out of me. I privately wonder if that had something to do with A-Li having a regular source of milk, but now I’m being ridiculous because Ye Hua isn’t that considerate or caring.
I think he’s expecting one of the other women will grow attached to the baby. Nevertheless, I can’t imagine that scenario since the folks assume Ye Hua and Qian Qian are married, A-Li being their son, and nobody has corrected the misassumption.
The Future Empress of Ming and her brother-in-law Fourth Prince Ye Hua, seamlessly blended in with those of lower status as if they were born into this simple life, and my friend would throat punch me and deny it, but I’ve seen it. I’ve noticed how he watches her when he thinks nobody is looking and stares at her with an expression I had never seen on his face.
To be continued…